What the Lady Wants


Page 4 of 19


Harold came back from the pantry with a loaf of homemade bread on a breadboard and a huge knife. "Get away from that counter, you dumb dog."

A bird chirped outside, and Bob swung his head around and smacked it sharply into the cabinet.

"I told you to move," Mae said to him, but Bob just blinked at her.

"He does this a lot?" Mitch asked.

"Daily," Mae said. "He's male. Like you. He never learns."

"Be nice, Mae," June said.

"Food in the library in five minutes," Harold said. "Take Bob before he brains himself again."

The library was like the rest of the house, full of dark paneling and heavy furniture upholstered in rich, dark colors, this time complemented by shelves of leather-bound books in dark brown, blood red and deep green, some protected by locking glass doors, all looking as if they'd never been read. Mitch had to fight the urge to shove the heavy velvet drapes back from the windows and let in a little light. "Nice place," he said to Mae as he sat at the massive table in the middle of the room. Bob collapsed next to him, laying his head across Mitch's shoe.

Mae looked at him as if he were demented. "You think so? It makes me want to scream. I always want to open the drapes. Now, about the diary—''

Mitch leaned back in his chair. "I like libraries. Mostly because I've dated a lot of librarians. Some of the best experiences in my life have been in libraries." He gazed around, noting for the first time that some of the brocade inserts in the paneling had dark squares where the fabric had faded around something that no longer hung there. He opened his mouth to ask Mae about it, but she interrupted him.

"About the diary," she said pointedly.

Mitch thought about insisting on following his own train of thought and then looked at the stubborn set of her mouth and gave up. "All right," he said. "Tell me about the diary."

Mae walked over to one of the glass-fronted bookcases while Mitch watched her in appreciation. If he got nothing else out of this case, at least he got to watch Mae Belle Sullivan move. She turned the key to open the door, and pulled down the last leather-bound volume from several rows of identical volumes.

"These are all Armand's diaries," she told him as she turned back to him. "There were fifty-eight of them, one for every year since he turned eighteen. He had these bound specially for him, and he kept them locked in this case. This is last year's diary." She handed it to him.

The book was thick and heavy, about five by seven inches, bound in hand-tooled leather and stamped on the spine with "Lewis" and the date. Mitch flipped it open to the middle and began to read Armand's account of the evening at the opera followed by a night with Stormy. Three pages later, he looked up to see Harold delivering a tray loaded with thick sandwiches, tankards of milk, and chocolate-chip cookies the size of small Frisbees.

Mae surveyed him across the table. "Found a good part, did you?"

"I can't wait to meet Stormy." Mitch closed the book and dropped it on the table, startling Bob, who raised his head and smacked it on the underside of the tabletop. Mitch winced, and then turned his attention to the butler. "Harold, how long have you worked here?"

Harold straightened. "Twenty-eight years. If you need anything else, ring." He nodded toward the small brass bell on the table, but his tone implied that Mitch could ring until the millennium and still not get service.

When Harold was gone, Mitch picked up a sandwich and said to Mae, "He came when you did?"

"Yes. Uncle Gio sent him. Now, about the diary..."

Mitch listened to Mae with one ear as he bit into the sandwich. It was full of slabs of roast beef, tomato and cheese, and he felt even more kindly toward June than he had before. She was pretty, she was warm, and she could make sandwiches. Men had gotten married for less. Not him, of course, but some men. He chewed and swallowed, then broke into Mae's explanation of how Armand had written daily in his diaries to ask her, "Why did Uncle Gio send Harold?"

"He didn't trust Uncle Armand." Mae peeled the bread off the top of a sandwich and picked up a piece of cheese. "Can we talk about the diary?"

"Look, Mabel. You can argue with me and waste time, or you can answer my questions. Why didn't Gio trust Armand?"

Mae put down her cheese, exasperated. "This is ridiculous. Uncle Gio did not kill Uncle Armand." "I didn't say he did. Why didn't he trust Armand?" Mae glared at him. "All right. Fine. This is just a guess, but I don't think Uncle Gio thought that Uncle Armand wanted me because he wanted a child of his own." "Why?"

"Because he was never much interested in me once I got here. " Mae calmed down. "I think one reason he fought for me was because he liked taking me away from Uncle Claud and Uncle Gio." "And what else?" Mae shrugged. "Nothing else." "There's got to be something else. You said one reason. That implies another reason."

"Well. I have a theory, but..." Mae picked up a slice of roast beef and began to nibble on it. "I read the diary from 1967 last night. That's the year I came. I was trying to figure out how I felt about him." She frowned at Mitch. "He wasn't an easy man to like, but I did live with him for twenty-eight years at his request. But he never liked me much." She looked more puzzled than hurt. "So I read the diary to see if my suspicions were right. And I think they were. I think it was because if I left, June would have left him."

"That would upset me," Mitch said, thinking of the food. "Why didn't he just offer her more money?"

"It wasn't the money. She was unhappy. Her son, Ronnie, had just died, and she was going to leave, and then Uncle Armand brought me home, and I think she knew I'd never get any love if she left, so she stayed." Mae picked up another slice of roast beef. "So he got to beat Uncle Claud and Uncle Gio and keep June. Putting up with me must have seemed minor in comparison."

Mitch scowled at her. Armand Lewis must have been a world-class jerk. Just looking at Mae, Mitch could tell she'd been a great kid, and now twenty-eight years later, all she could say was, "He didn't like me much." Hell of a way to treat a kid. He felt himself growing angry, and put a lid on it. She was a grownup now and obviously capable of looking after herself, and he had a strict rule about getting emotionally involved with his clients. Of course, with his other clients, that hadn't been a problem. His other clients hadn't been Mae Belle Sullivan.

Mitch jerked his mind away from the thought. "That doesn't explain why Harold came to stay."

Mae peeled another layer off her sandwich. "Uncle Gio sent Harold because he knew Uncle Armand didn't like kids. And Uncle Gio loves kids. He was worried about me. He still worries about me. So he sent Harold."

Good for Gio, Mitch thought and then stopped himself. He did not approve of Gio Donatello. Period. Back to Harold. "And Armand let Harold stay?"

Mae nodded. "I think he liked having him here for free, since Gio was paying at first. And then Harold and June fell in love, which was great because I ended up with two parents just like normal kids. So he's still here. Could we talk about the diary now?"

"That doesn't explain why Armand didn't want you to move out once you were grown," Mitch pointed out. "Maybe he really did care about you and just—" He stopped because Mae was shaking her head.

"The minute I moved out, June and Harold would have been gone." She picked up another slice of cheese. "He just didn't want to lose good help. And I couldn't afford to support June and Harold. They would have had to find a place that needed both a butler and a cook and that would give them the freedom they're used to, and it wasn't going to happen. Even at Uncle Gio's, they would just have been part of the staff. They needed a home."

"And you're responsible for giving them one?"

"Of course." Mae blinked at him, surprise apparent on her face. "They raised me. They count on me. They need me. I owe them."

"Oh." Mitch picked up his second sandwich. "This still doesn't make sense. Why couldn't they just stay and work for Armand?"

"Because they both hated him." Mae narrowed her eyes at him. "Do not get distracted by that. They didn't hate him enough to kill him. If they'd wanted to kill h

im, they'd have done it years ago." She drank a slug of milk and licked her milk mustache off, distracting Mitch from his questions. She reached for a cookie. "Now, about the diary—"

"You can't have a cookie until you've finished your sandwich, Mabel." Mitch moved the cookie plate out of her reach.

"I can have anything I want." Mae pulled the plate back toward her, but Mitch held on, and she yanked on it, knocking the rest of her sandwich onto the floor where Bob swallowed it whole and then choked for thirty seconds. Mae patted the dog on the back until he stopped hacking, and he collapsed in gratitude at her feet.

Mitch shook his head in contempt. "Is he okay?"

"Yes." Mae smiled affectionately at the dog. "He's dumb, but he's okay." She turned back to Mitch. "Go ahead, inhale your next sandwich. I can do the Heimlich."

Mitch picked up his sandwich. "So why do you want the diary?"

"Because whoever has the diary killed my Uncle Armand," Mae said piously as she reached for a cookie. "I think justice should be served."

"Because you loved him so much."

"Actually, I didn't even like him much, but that's beside the point. The point is—"

"That you want the diary. I know, I know." Mitch put the rest of his sandwich back on his plate. "The memorial service is the day after tomorrow?"

Mae nodded as she chewed her cookie.

"And Gio and Carlo and Claud will be there."

Mae nodded again.

"Who else? Stormy?"

Mae nodded and swallowed the last of her cookie. "And also most of the business community, like Dalton Briggs. He's been hanging around a lot lately, and he was engaged in some sort of business deal with Uncle Armand. And I suppose some of Uncle Armand's ex-girlfriends might... oh, God." She froze with her hand over the cookie plate. "Barbara."

"Barbara?"

"Barbara Ross. She's been dating Uncle Armand. Very high-society stuff." Mae looked ill. "She's going to meet Stormy. Oh, poor Stormy, first Armand dies and now this. This is going to be awful. I'm going to have to think of something."

Mitch frowned at her distress and then at himself for caring. He pointed at the most recent journal. "It says here that Armand set Stormy up in a town house."

"He kept a place a few miles from here. She used to live there, but I'm pretty sure she moved out."

"Do you have a key?"

"To the town house?" Mae nodded. "Harold has one. He went over and brought a box of Uncle Armand's personal stuff home. The rest of his clothes are in boxes for Goodwill. They're still there, so we still have the key."

"Okay. I'll pick you up at nine tomorrow morning. I want to see the place. I also want to look around this house and talk to Barbara Ross and Stormy, but I want to see the town house first."

Mae looked exasperated. "The diary's not there. Harold looked."

"Forget the diary for a minute. There are other things of interest in that apartment." Mitch stood up. "In the meantime, can I take a couple of the old diaries with me?"

Mae scowled up at him. "But what I want is—"

"I know. The one that's missing," Mitch finished. "Let me do this my way."

"Do I have a choice?"

"No."

Mitch went to the bookshelves, and Mae rang the bell. Harold appeared.

"What?" he said. "The game's on. I'm missing it."

"Wrap up the rest of this stuff for Mr. Peatwick, please." Mae waved her hand at the food on the tray. "He has a lot of heavy reading to do tonight, and he'll need food."

Mitch turned back from the bookcase with three volumes in his hands. "You're a good woman, Mabel. Spoiled rotten, but basically good."

Harold snorted and stalked out with the tray, closely followed by Bob, and Mae rose to look at the diaries he'd taken.

"Okay, 1967 I get. That's the year I came. Why 1977 and 1978?"

"I want to know what Armand did that made Gio so mad he never talked to him again." Mitch picked up the 1993 volume from the table and added it to the stack in his arms. "I may be back for more."

"Why?" Mae didn't even bother to hide her annoyance. "That's all in the past. I want—"

Mitch put his free hand over her mouth and was momentarily distracted by the softness of her lips against his palm. He was getting distracted a lot today. Must be age. "Look, you want to find your uncle's killer. And the only way to do that is to find out what made your uncle killable. You do want to find his killer, right?"

Mae's eyes met his, huge and wary, and she nodded as he took his hand away. "Right."

You're lying to me again, Mabel, Mitch thought, but all he said was, "Well, then, that's what we'll do. As soon as I've read these diaries, we'll go find who killed him."

Chapter Three

When Mitch was gone with the diaries and the food, Mae leaned back in her chair and considered her situation. Mitch was definitely going to annoy everybody in Riverbend; he'd probably been doing it for years. If she could just keep him focused on the diaries, he could easily drive whoever had the missing volume to give it up and probably to take to drink, too. And keeping him focused might be easier now that he actually had some of the diaries in his hands....

That made her think about his hands. Of all the times for her hormones to kick in, this was the worst, but there it was. Ever since she'd met him, she'd had that bubbly feeling under her skin that she hadn't felt for a good long time. It was a nice feeling to have, but not in conjunction with Mitchell Peatwick. He was arrogant and stubborn and his face looked like a catcher's mitt with a jaw. And she absolutely was not going to get herself mixed up with a man who didn't listen to her; she had enough men not listening to her in her life already.

Once again in control of the situation, Mae wandered back to the kitchen and sat down to pry the heels she'd borrowed from June off her feet.

"Thank you," she said, handing them back. "They were agony."

"Poor baby." June put the shoes on the counter. "Do you want a basin of Epsom salts?"

"No." Mae rubbed one of her reddened feet. "I want the money so we can move to a better place than this mausoleum and live like normal human beings and you won't ever have to worry about the future again. This is driving me crazy."

"I cleaned Armand's room today," June said. "The painting of that nude woman is gone."

Mae stopped rubbing. "The Lempicka? How long has it been gone?''

"I don't know." June sank into the chair at the end of the table. "I think it was there last Wednesday when I did the room, but I'm not sure. I hate that damn room."

"I know. Don't worry about it. Pretty soon we'll get the inheritance and move and you won't ever have to see this place again." Mae took June's hand and held it tightly until the older woman smiled and relaxed again. Then Mae went back to the current problem. "He might have sold the painting."

"I don't like it." June's pleasantly vacuous face turned grim. "He never let go of anything, and then suddenly everything starts disappearing. There's something really wrong here."

Mae nodded. "Whatever it is, it'll be in the diary. He said, 'They can't get the money without the diary' that day on the phone. We need that diary."

"Well, maybe your detective will find it for us. He seems quite nice." June's voice softened. "If it wasn't for Harold, I'd be quite interested."

Mae grinned at her lovingly. "I think he feels the same. He was looking at you with a lot of appreciation."

June flapped her hand. "Oh, he was just detecting." She leaned back in her chair. "What did you think of him?"

"Well, I thought he was dumb as a rock." Mae tried to sound disinterested. "But I'm not so sure. I think he's just different."

"Different how?" June prompted.

Mae shrugged. "Oh, he doesn't act macho or protective or charming or any of the usual garbage. He just asks me questions and looks down my jacket and treats me like...anybody." She rubbed her foot again. "He's really up-front about being a loser."

June studied Mae under her eyelashes. "I don't think he's a loser.

And I don't think he thinks you're just anybody. He seemed quite interested in you."

"He just likes women." Mae sat back. "And the more I think about it, the more I don't think he's as dumb as I thought he was."

"I don't think he's dumb at all." June smiled. "I think he's going to be good. Maybe we should tell him the truth and let him take care of everything."

"No." Mae's voice was firm. "Letting men take care of everything means you end up with nothing. Besides, you should have seen him at Uncle Gio's. Carlo pulled a gun, and he stepped behind me."

"Smart man." June nodded approvingly. "And so attractive."

"Oh, please."

"I'm serious." June leaned forward. "Your problem is that you've always been with those pretty boys.

Carlo and that worthless Dalton. Now, Mitchell Peatwick isn't pretty, but he's..." She stopped, obviously searching for the right word.

"Earthy?" Mae suggested.

"All man," June said, and Mae groaned. "Listen to me, sweetie, I know men. And I will bet you that Mitchell Peatwick could give you a very good time in bed."

Mae closed her eyes to shut out the thought, but her mind flashed to Mitch's hands moving across the notepad, to his body solid on hers as he'd yanked on the seat belt, to his grin kicking up her pulse as he'd quizzed her in the library. Then she thought about him in bed and immediately squelched the feeling the thought stirred. "He'd probably forget I was there." Mae shoved back her chair and stood up, unbuttoning the waistband of June's pink skirt. "Oh, God," she sighed as the zipper unzipped itself down her hip. "That feels so good."

June smiled up at her. "So would Mitchell Peatwick."

"Not in a million years," Mae said.

"We'll see," June said.

The midsummer heat filled Mitch's dingy apartment like fog. He stretched out on his battered iron bed in his white boxer shorts, trying not to dissolve in his own sweat while he read Armand's 1978 journal. Armand's style wasn't exciting, but his plot line was riveting. Having already finished the 1967 and 1977 diaries, Mitch knew that finding somebody with a motive for killing Armand was not going to be a problem. Finding eight pallbearers would be a stretch, but locating people with a yen to kill Armand Lewis would be a piece of cake.




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